I finally made it to Israel, but not without a Washington moment.
It was 11:26 when I arrived, breathless, at the Delta shuttle counter...just as the gate was closing. But a trim man in a blue suit and white hair was already at the counter protesting.
"I'm Senator John McCain, and I've got to get on that flight!" he was saying. Timidly, I pipped up, "And I'm trying to get to Israel."
The clerk rolled her eyes as we watched another ticket agent open the door and take a bag down the ramp.
McCain demanded a supervisor. After a few more critical minutes, a tall laconic man in those two tone glasses emerged from the gangway.
"I'm Senator John McCain," my soul-mate began again, and I waited for him to add, "and I'm running for president."
The supervisor shrugged his shoulders.
"What's your name!" McCain demanded.
"Zimmerman," he replied.
"I've got to get to New York..." (It turned out he was getting an award from a group of Israeli freedom fighters that night.) "...and this man's got to get to Israel." The reference to me seemed gratuitous. "You're still loading bags!"
"The gate has been shut, sir."
"Well, you're in trouble, Mr. Zimmerman." The candidate turned on his heel and stomped off toward the US Air shuttle which leaves a half an hour later. I hustled off behind him, the tinker of Reagan airport, trundling all my luggage. Hey, I thought maybe I could ride his coattails.
"I really can't make a big fuss about this right now," McCain whispered confidentially when we were out of ear shot. "Not now."
US Air suddenly seemed a long way away, down the cavernous granite hallway on the opposite side of the terminal. My computer and book bag kept falling to my elbows. My suitcase on wheels kept falling over. I was trying to be charming. I began to sweat. It was hard to keep up. After all, he was running for President.
Finally, he said, "Can I take one of those bags?"
Without thinking, I handed the hopeful my briefcase...with all my tickets, my contacts, my two passports since I would need a second to go from Israel to Syria.
At the security check I threw my huge suitcase on the conveyor belt. "You go ahead and be our point man," I commanded, compounding my difficulty. I watched him disappear down the corridor. Of course I was dangling all kinds of metal. It took an eternity to get through. Then I realized what I was missing.
But there at the counter, to my immense relief, stood the quintessential millennium candidate with his cell phone. He handed me back my life. "There are plenty of seats," he said consolingly. Was he trying to get rid of me? "Save me one, " I said importantly. When I fished out my ticket, the agent asked if I had packed my bags myself...and had they been in my possession ever since.
"Yes!" I lied emphatically. Clinton flashed through my mind: I mean, in the post-Clinton era we've got to get back to trusting our presidential candidates, right?
On the plane we discussed Vietnam, World War I, impeachment and his 14 different fund raisers for his campaign. He tried to remember the name of the Israeli freedom fighter group who was awarding him something at a banquet that night, but in his briefcase he couldn't find the schedule for the right day. I was beginning to like the guy.
"So you're really going to go for it." I said.
"I don't have anything better to do this spring," he said. I thought about what I was doing this spring and whether I had anything better to do.
When I told him what I was writing, he professed to be a Crusader buff himself. Five years a prisoner in Hanoi and two months a prisoner on the Senate floor, and he was a Crusader buff? I wasn't sure I could believe him. He told me to visit the King David Hotel and recommended a restaurant overlooking the Wailing Wall where the food wasn't much but the view was unforgettable.
Oops, got to stop now, Rudy. Here come my blintzes. The Hassidic kids below the terrace are pretty loud. But the Dome of the Rock is especially luminous tonight.
Shalom...and Shalom to you too, Senator McCain, wherever you are. You were right, the food isn't much, but the view, oh, the view.
James Reston, Jr. is the author of the Last Apocalypse: Europe at the Year 1000 A.D. which has just been released in paperback. He's working on a new book about the Crusades.
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